Jeff Davis County, Texas. May 27th, 1924
I met John Fant on the worst day of my life.
There he was, the most handsome human being I’d ever seen, standing at the bottom of my daddy’s porch clutching a straw Panama hat in his hand, the mournful expression on his face belying the jauntiness of his double-breasted lightweight jacket and Oxford Bags with sharp, smart creases running smoothly down the front of the legs. An intense, magnetic energy radiated from him, rolling toward me like heat waves off the Chihuahuan Desert and I felt an inexplicable tug in the square center of my belly.
His gaze settled heavily on my face. There were shadows under his eyes as if he’d been up all night, and there was a tightness to his lips that troubled me. A snazzy red Nash Roadster sat on a patch of dirt just off the one lane wagon road that ran in front of the house. It looked just as out of place as the magnificent man in my front yard.
My knees turned as watery as the mustang grape jelly I canned last summer that hadn’t set up right and suddenly, I couldn’t catch my breath. I hung onto the screen door that I was half hiding behind.
“Is this Corliss Greenwood’s residence?” he asked.
“Yessir.” I raised my chin, and stepped out onto the porch. The screen door wavered behind me, the snap stretched out of the spring from too many years of too many kids bamming it closed. Without looking around, I kicked the door shut with my bare heel.
He came up on the porch, the termite-weakened steps sagging and creaking underneath his weight.
Shame burned my cheeks. Please, God, don’t let him put one of those two-tone wingtips right through a rotten board.
He was tall with broad shoulders, and even though he was whip-lean, he looked as strong as a prize-winning Longhorn bull. A spot of freshly dried blood stained his right cheek where he must of cut himself shaving. He’d shaved in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week? His hair was the color of coal and he wore it slicked back off his forehead. His teeth were straight and white as piano keys and I imagined that when he smiled, it went all the way up to his chocolate brown eyes, but he wasn’t smiling now.
Mr. Fant had caught me indisposed. I must look frightful in the frayed gray dress I wore when cleaning. The material was way too tight around my chest because my breasts had blossomed along with the spring flowers. Strands of unruly hair were popping out of my sloppy braid and falling around my face. I pushed them back.
Another step closer and he was only an arm’s length away.
My heart started thudding. His masculine fragrance wafted over to me in the heat of the noonday sun, notes of leather, oranges, rosemary, cedar, clove and moss. Perfume! He was wearing perfume. I’d never met a man who wore perfume before, but it smelled mighty good, fresh and clean and rich.
My daddy always said I would have made a keen bloodhound with the nose I had on me. A well developed sense of smell can be good for some things, like telling when a loaf of warm yeast bread is ready to come out of the oven, and inhaling a snout full of sunshine while unpinning clothes from the line, but other times having a good sniffer could be downright unpleasant—for instance when visiting the outhouse in August.
“Is Corliss your father?”
My throat had squeezed up, so I just nodded.
“I’m John Fant.”
I knew who he was of course. The Fants were the wealthiest family in Jeff Davis County. Truth be told, they were the wealthiest family between the Pecos River and the New Mexico border. The Fants had founded the town of Cupid, which lay twenty-five miles due north in the Foothills of the Fort Davis Mountains and they owned the Fant Silver Mine where my father worked. Three years ago, when John had returned home with a degree from Maryland State College, his father, Silas Fant, had turned the family business over to his only son.
The screen door drifted open against my calf and I bumped it closed again.
He arched a dark eyebrow. “And you are…?”
“Millie Greenwood,” I managed to push my name over my lips.
“How old are you, Millie?”
The way he said my name sent a shiver shaking down my spine for no good reason. It seemed a nosy question and I was within my rights to go back inside and shut the door in his face. It wasn’t proper for a young lady to have a prolonged conversation with a good-looking bachelor on her front porch without a chaperone present, but I answered him anyway. “I turned seventeen last week.”
He flicked a glance over my shoulder. “Is your mother home?”
I’d sent my brothers and sisters off blackberry picking so I could clean the house after Mama took a BC powder and went to bed to sleep off one of her migraines, but I didn’t want him to know I was basically alone. “She’s inside.”
“May I come in?”
“I’m not allowed to invite strangers into the house.”
“I’m not a stranger, I’m your father’s boss.”
That was true enough. I hesitated, uncertain of what to do next.
“I’m afraid I’ve got some very bad news,” he said in a soft voice. The expression in his eyes was far too kind. “This isn’t the sort of thing that should be discussed on the porch.”
I went sick all over when he said that. This time, when the screen door hit me in the behind, I didn’t close it, but instead held it wide open. “C’mon in.”
A fly came in with us, buzzed lazy circles around the sitting room. My chest was so tight that I was having trouble breathing and my head pounded hard. Was I gonna hafta take a BC powder myself?
I waved at the sofa. “Please have a seat, Mr. Fant, while I fetch my mother.”
He didn’t sit, just stood there, holding his hat.
I slipped down the short hall to the bedroom my mother and father shared and knocked lightly on the door. “Mama, I called. “Mr. John Fant is in our sitting room.”
Less than a minute later, the door wrenched open. My mother wore only a thin chemise and her hair was all mashed up on the side. Her face was ghostly pale the way it got every time she had a migraine, but what scared me to death was the look of pure terror in her eyes. “John Fant is here? In our house?”
Mutely, I nodded.
The blue vein at the hollow of her throat pulsed fast. She ran her fingers through her hair and moved into the hallway.
I rested a hand on her shoulder. Her skin felt so cold. “Mama, you need to put on a dressing gown.”
“Yes, yes,” she murmured, disappeared into the bedroom only to poke her head out again. “What was I looking for?”
The lump in my throat grew bigger with each passing second, and I struggled to keep my mind from leaping to conclusions, but dread settled into my bone marrow. I clenched my hands into fists, closed my eyes. Please, God.
Finally, Mama came back out, trying to cinch the belt of her faded pink floral dressing gown, but her hands were shaking so hard she couldn’t manage it.
“Here,” I said and tied it for her.
“Thank you, Millie,” she whispered and cupped my cheek with her palm.
I took her hand and led her to the sitting room. Mr. Fant was still standing, still held that silly Panama hat that he was turning around and around in his hands.
He nodded at my mother, his face somber. “Mrs. Greenwood.”
Mama drew a shuttering breath so deep that I felt it in my own body. “Mr. Fant.”
“Please, sit down,” he invited like it was his house instead of ours.
Mama sagged against me and made a soft mewling noise like a newborn kitten. I guided her over to the threadbare sofa. She wilted onto it and I perched beside her, making sure to sit on the grape jelly spot, permanently embedded into the fabric, so Mr. Fant couldn’t see the stain.
He pulled up a Hitchcock chair from the corner of the room and sat down in front of us.
Mama was plucking restlessly at the lapel of her dressing gown, like she was picking off lint. I touched her hand so she would stop.
Mr. Fant’s grim eyes met mine.
I curled my fingers into crabapple knots against my thighs.
He leaned over and laid his big palm on my closed fist. I was surprised to discover it was calloused like a workman’s. I expected a man of Mr. Fant’s status to have palms as smooth as a baby’s backside. If the situation hadn’t been what it was, I would have been both alarmed and excited by the feelings that his touch stirred, but considering the circumstances, I was just plain numb.
“Mrs. Greenwood, Miss Greenwood.” He stopped, cleared his throat. “I’m afraid I have some tragic news.”
“Just say it!” I blurted, unable to stand the tension one second longer.
“There’s been a cave-in at the silver mine,” he said gently. “I’m so—
“No!” My mother wailed before he finished speaking, clutched her head in both hands and began rocking to and fro. “No, no, no!”
I felt my mind break away from my body and drift up toward the ceiling. I was outside myself, watching the whole proceedings from afar. You could have slapped a scalding hot branding iron against my barefoot and I wouldn’t have felt a thing.
“I deeply regret to inform you,” He went on stoically, but the pain in his dark eyes gave him away. This event had touched him profoundly. “That Mr. Corliss Greenwood has lost his life.”